Monday, May 01, 2006

The Kosher Grasshopper

Lev. 11:44a, 47
For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy…. [This is the Torah] to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which may not be eaten.

A concise version of Leviticus chapter 11: Pig is out, grasshopper in. I can see I've been missing out on some fine selections for the dinner menu!

On a more serious note, compare Lev. 10:10 with 11:47. Every culture makes judgments about what may appear on the menu, and these "eating rules" are fairly rigid even in our free country. Horse? No way (for most of us). Ditto dog, cat and grasshopper. Whatever conclusion one comes to about observing kashrut, the system of kashrut serves to promote the value of holiness and the importance of discernment even in practical matters, such as food.

We also forget that kashrut in its historical origin was a matter of law for a nation governed by laws, just as we have statutes which make distinctions about what is clean (acceptable) and unclean (prohibited). I believe spotted owls are unclean today, due to a different cultural value: for the preservation of every species except one.

To keep or not to keep kosher…

Reform Judaism began, in the mid-1800s, as an attempt to make Judaism relevant to modern society, and to focus on the central message of Judaism which was said to be “ethical monotheism”: the belief in one God who revealed moral precepts to mankind. As a consequence, Reform Judaism’s view of the Torah made a distinction between the moral laws which continued to be relevant, and the ceremonial and social laws which served a purpose in the history of Israel as a nation but which no longer made sense to follow. Among these in the latter group were dietary laws known as kashrut, i.e., keeping kosher.

Kashrut is considered binding in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, although these two branches of Judaism vary somewhat in their interpretation of the laws of kashrut. In general terms, pork and shellfish are prohibited, other meat must be slaughtered and prepared according to certain standards, meat and milk are not consumed together, etc. The purpose of kashrut, as well as other observances, is sanctification, not salvation. By following the dietary laws, a Jew recognizes the presence and significance of God even in the food eaten, and so sanctifies the act of eating as if doing so before God. What does God care whether or not one eats pork? Perhaps God doesn’t, but in the tradition of Israel and the teaching of the Torah (both of which are ascribed to God), it is prohibited. And in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, kashrut represents the commandment of God given through Moses at Sinai.

Reform Judaism in its “classical” form dispensed with all of this, except that pork was generally not consumed out of deference to the broader community of Judaism.

In the past several decades Reform Judaism has moved toward more traditional observance of ceremonial and social laws, especially in such areas as prayer services, celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, and to a somewhat lesser degree kashrut. The move has been made partly in response to the existence of the state of Israel, and partly in response to the impact of the Holocaust: nothing like a catastrophe to remind one of one’s roots, ethnic and spiritual. Even so, “personal autonomy” remains a central idea in Reform Judaism, so that observance is not based on arguments from “authority.” As another movement in Judaism puts it, tradition gets a vote but not a veto.

… and what do I think about it

My own view is a bit different. I don’t find a large place for “personal autonomy” in the Torah, rather “personal autonomy” is more a practical adjustment to modern free society than an ideal to be pursued. The ideal is community governed by a covenant with God. So while I may not personally see the sense of the specific dietary laws that make up kashrut, the purpose of kashrut — sanctifying daily life before God — does make sense. Beyond that, the covenant is not between me as an individual and God, but between Israel and God. So as one who aspires to association with Israel as the covenant community of God, kashrut is important.

My interpretation of kashrut is not as restrictive as tradition has made it. The culture-bound nature of the dietary laws can be easily understood by comparison with the strange tastes (and distastes) of other cultures, also ascribed to God. So while I do not find the distinction between the moral laws and the social/ceremonial laws all that helpful (e.g., the Sabbath falls in the latter category, but what would Israel be without it?), I do consider the historical and cultural context of the laws important in any attempt to apply them to modern life.

All that said, my standard remains: when in doubt, observe. Observe for the sake of community, observe out of a humble attitude toward my own personal opinions, observe for the purpose of sanctification. In short, as A.J. Heschel said, “God is everywhere save in arrogance.” I do not arrogantly stand in judgment of the Torah, rather I allow the Torah to judge me and so teach me.


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